By Stasa Salacanin
Russia’s intention to play a greater role in Libya has launched numerous speculations about Moscow’s agenda in this war-ravaged country.
Until 2011 and the fall of Gaddafi’s regime, Russia and Libya enjoyed fruitful economic and political cooperation. The popular uprising and foreign intervention completely halted their relations causing significant loses for the Russian side.
Depending on sources, Russia lost between $4 and $10 billion in contracts (mostly military) that were never accomplished.
In 2016, the trade flow between the two countries dropped to only $74 million. But in the last two years, frequent contacts between top Libyan and Russian officials indicate that this is about to change as Russia is coming back.
After Western states failed to achieve a stable transition of the country after the revolution and military intervention Russia has increased its efforts to regain the influence and to restore the broken ties filling the vacuum created.
In addition, various media reports suggest that Russia is allegedly increasing its military presence in Libya leading some to a conclusion that Moscow is trying to turn Libya into new Russian stronghold in the South Mediterranean.
Is Russia really deploying its troops in Libya?
In October the UK tabloid The Sun published an article claiming that Russia wants to take control of Libya.
According to the story, Russia has established two military bases in Tobruk and Benghazi and deployed dozens of special forces (Spetsnaz) servicemen officers of the Chief Directorate of the General Staff – previously known as the GRU, Russia’s main military intelligence service– as well as Kalibr anti-ship missiles and S-300 air defence missile systems.
The tabloid also claims that seizing control of the biggest illegal immigration route to Europe is Moscow’s primary objective, as it would allow Russia better negotiating positions when dealing with Europe.
However, Jonathan M. Winer, Scholar at Middle East Institute and former US Special Envoy for Libya, as well as former counsel to the US Senator John Kerry, explained that it is hard to use something as a bargaining chip that you do not possess.
Ungoverned territory, civil wars, and bad governments who fail to provide basic levels of security, stability, food and work in the Middle East and Africa have all played significant roles in creating the conditions for people in those countries to seek greater safety, security, and opportunity in the European Union.
“The 1,770 kilometre Libyan coast cannot be secured by any foreign power without comprehensive Libyan cooperation. Russia is poorly positioned to get that at a national level, even if it has been successful in purchasing relationships with the current leaders of the House of Representatives in Tobruk and with General Haftar and his forces,” he told The New Arab.
While Russia is definitely interested in restoring once close ties with Libya, the allegations coming from The Sunand some other media outlets are highly debatable.
In the toxic atmosphere of emerging new cold war between some Western states (notably the UK) and Russia, inaccurate or false reports are nothing new and many of these “news” fall into the category of propaganda for domestic consumers. There has been little or no concrete evidence of Russian greater military presence in the region.
Deployment of military hardware and personnel in the big cities such as Tobruk or Benghazi would be detected so far, as it would be almost impossible to hide it.
Sarah Yerkes, a fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Programme, told The New Arab that while she is not sure whether Russia will establish a base in Libya, it certainly could expand its influence there.
“Russia has had an interest in North Africa for some time, and the chaos in Libya is the perfect environment for Russia to gain a stronger foothold,” she added.
Indeed, in the past few years, various Libyan forces have welcomed limited foreign military assistance against the Islamic State group [IS], al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, Ansar al-Sharia, and Jama’a Nusrat al-Islam, in the form of weapons and intelligence.
However, Russia has only two military bases outside of countries who were in the former Soviet Union- in Vietnam and Syria. Winer seriously doubts the Libyan people would welcome Libya becoming the third.
“My very strong impression is that Libyans do not want to be told what to do even by other Libyans, let alone foreigners of any kind, including Russian ones,” he said.
Russian interests in Libya
There are also several other factors that could motivate an increased Russian presence, particularly Libya’s oil and Russian contracts there.
Some believe that one of Russia’s main goals is gaining control over Libya’s oil reserves, which rank 10th in the world. Two years ago, Rosneft and Libya’s National Oil Corporation signed a cooperation agreement.
Since most of the country’s oil fields are located in eastern Libya, many believe that this evidence explains Russia’s close ties with General Haftar’s faction. But this cooperation is extremely difficult and expensive considering the current security situation in the country.
Besides oil, Yerkes points that Russia also has an interest in preventing further growth of IS and other extremist groups there. Russia would also likely want to restart arms sales that plummeted following Gaddafi’s death.
Who is Russia supporting in Libya?
Many reports are suggesting that Russia is secretly supporting Eastern Libyan strongman General Khalifa Haftar. Haftar’s Libyan National Army represents the Tobruk-based Libyan National Congress in the country’s east, who gained a high reputation after defeating radicals.
The UN and Western states, however, endorsed the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord and its leader Fayez al-Sarraj.
International key factors have unsuccessfully attempted to reconcile two factions but it seems that Russia, encouraged by its diplomatic and military success in Syria tried to play a leading role in Libya too.
The rivaling leader has visited Moscow on several occasions leaving the impression that Moscow tries to keep good relations with both sides, what may prove beneficial once the civil war is over.
In theory, Russia has tried to follow the principle of equidistance with Tripoli and Tobruk as two somewhat legitimate centers of state administration and authority.
However, Russia has a long history of finding and manipulating local actors in countries with weakened governments, especially corrupt ones.
Winer recalls that in 2016, Russia printed billions in counterfeit Libyan dinars and gave them to Speaker of the House Agila and General Haftar, damaging the Libyan government of national accord and the Libyan economy in the process, contributing to Libya’s massive inflation, and facilitating grand corruption.
Such tactics to gain influence work well during times of trouble. He thinks that whenever Libya gets beyond its current crisis, Libyans will want a domestic Libyan government to control Libyan territory, Libyan security, Libyan oil, Libyan wealth, and Libya’s future – not foreigners of any kind.
From there it is hard to think of Russia as an objective mediator, despite the declared principle of equidistance. While Russia is the only major power currently engaged in Libya, its ability to replace the West and the UN as a new and more successful mediator is questionable.
According to Winer, if Russia seeks to go it alone on negotiations with the various Libyan factions, it will be unlikely to achieve even the type of success achieved by Egypt, France, and Italy, among others, in 2018 – which is very little.
Russia can be helpful if it aligns itself with the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) and with other countries, from North Africa, the Middle East and Europe, as well as the US and other influential countries such as China, to support efforts that enable Libyans to reach compromises and move forward with a national conference, a referendum on a Constitution, and national elections.
Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who writes for several newspapers across the Middle East, including BQ Doha and Qatar Today. He has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, terrorism and defence.
The New Arab